Thou Shalt Review Books Responsibly

Chris Beneke

Last week, Robert Pinsky, the former poet laureate, offered three exceedingly sensible “golden requirements for book reviews”:

1. The review must tell what the book is about.

2. The review must tell what the book's author says about that thing the book is about.

3. The review must tell what the reviewer thinks about what the book's author says about that thing the book is about.

Those who have mastered the art of reviewing books, writes Pinsky, can “then get quickly beyond them, in ways that are fun to read.” The problem is that too many reviewers fail to comply with all three. Some consider two—or even one—sufficient.

My sense is that historians are a little more solicitous than most when it comes to these matters. Maybe it’s because we’re a relatively small, incestuous community where you’re likely to run into the book’s author at the next major conference—or, heaven forbid, have your own book reviewed by the injured party three journal issues hence. Of course, most historical journals convey something along these lines in their reviewer guidelines; though they are seldom, if ever, stated with such crystalline precision.

It’s fairly obvious that historians follow one rule almost as piously as Pinsky’s Golden Three. It’s more tactic than principle, and goes something like this: In a favorable journal review, the review’s penultimate paragraph must identify the book’s minor flaws. Perhaps you object to this entrenched professional habit on aesthetic grounds, but it would be hard to make a strong ethical or professional case against it.

Anyway, to Pinsky’s Golden Requirements, we might add the following historically specific Decalogue:

1. Thou shalt not use the review to tell us about your own scholarship.

2. Thou shalt not tell readers that “the definitive history of such-and-such remains to be written” when you are the person who intends to write it.

3. Thou shalt not tell us too much—or really anything at all—about the supposed religious beliefs or political commitments of the author whose book is being reviewed.

4. Thou shalt not treat the omission of your own book from the endnotes as a personal affront, punishable by withering historiographical criticism.

5. Thou shalt not use the review to suck up to powerful and/or beloved members of the profession. (Corollary: Thou shalt honor thy dissertation advisor, but not in your review.)

6. Thou shalt not use the review as an occasion to advance a specific political agenda.

7. Thou shalt not tell readers—either explicitly or implicitly—that the book under review does not deserve serious consideration. That shalt be told to the editor, privately, before the review is written.

8. Thou shalt not submit the review six months after the due date, especially when the book was published three years ago.

9. Thou shalt not use the review to expose your utter ignorance of the topic.

10. In reviews of edited collections, thou shalt tell a little something about each contribution.

What am I missing?